Paul Mercer: As a frequent flyer, I’ve seen the issues with the red list for travel – which may even increase Covid transmission

4 Jun

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The Government’s latest attempt to control people entering the UK from the countries on the “red list” involves directing flights from those countries to Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport and then transporting them directly to quarantine hotels. Although this plan makes some sense, it is difficult to see how it will achieve much and may even increase the risk of transmission.

Over the past six months I have (legitimately) visited four countries, two of which are now on the red list, and I have seen the way in which the system has evolved at Heathrow. Most recently, having returned from Uganda, border force officers were dealing with arriving passengers far more effectively. In fact, arriving mid-morning the wait was less than it had been in pre-Covid days.

There are essentially three difficulties which this “red list terminal” plan fails to address.

The first is that of the 43 countries the majority do not fly directly into the UK. Passengers travelling from most of the red list countries are likely to transit through major European hubs and then fly into Heathrow on a European airline. Heathrow should have taken account of this and the present system, whereby red list passengers are weeded out of the queue, but those who have passed through “green” and “amber” hubs – from a red zone – will not have been identified.

Thus the problem that this queue system seeks to address – stopping red list passengers from mixing with those coming in from green and amber countries – is not fixed and could even worsen because it will give passengers a false sense of security.

The second problem is that regulations theoretically permit passengers transiting through red list countries to avoid going into quarantine hotels. Government guidance states that rules “could” apply but only if you “mix”, but it fails to specify what this means in practice. If, for instance, one is sitting at the front of the plane and does not come into contact with passengers from the red list country, one could credibly argue that no mixing has occurred and therefore not be sent to quarantine hotel.

Last week, while at Heathrow, I took the opportunity to ask two senior border force officers what this meant in practice. The first, a senior officer (the one with two pips), said that he had never seen this rule and complained that they were being “sent changes in the regulations virtually every day”; the second, a higher officer (one pip), likewise did not know and suggested that, perhaps, I should ask my MP for clarification.

The third problem is that dedicated terminal makes it possible to segregate some passengers from red list countries, but it may become easier for those who have transited through a non-red list country to deliberately avoid being identified. In my case, I was only asked by a congenial border force officer which countries I had visited without even looking at the entries in my passport. With some passengers having more than one passport there appears to be no obvious way to ascertain whether they had been in a red list country in the past 10 days if they have used two or more airlines.

The principal risk appears to be a concern that passengers from red list countries are mixing as they walk from the aircraft to the checking area. Unfortunately walk from many of the gates can often be more than 20 minutes, meaning that many passengers are often out of breath by the time they arrive – especially if they are concerned about long queues ahead. In the confined corridors this will only increase the chances of the virus spreading.

There is no easy solution to these issues but what is clear is that different countries are applying different standards and, in some cases, more rigorous than the UK. In Uganda, for instance, passengers can only enter the airport if their Covid test has been checked electronically, whereas for passengers leaving Britain the PCR test receives only a cursory glance at check-in. This offers the possibility of fast-tracking passengers coming in from countries which are known to have these more thorough checks.

Another change which would help identify anyone who was attempting to evade the quarantine hotel by using another passport would simply be to include a legal requirement on the “passenger locator form” to include all passports held.

The Government is never going to find the perfect solution to the challenge of preventing passengers carrying new variants of the virus arriving but the present system, and the latest changes, still do not properly help matters.

Paul Mercer: Covid tests, airport checks – and how to avoid British citizens from being stranded abroad

18 Jan

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The move to insist that returning travellers take a negative Covid-19 test makes sense, because it reduces the chance of new infections being brought into the UK, and means that passengers are less likely to infect each other.

Tests in Canada revealed that 1.5 per cent of non-symptomatic travellers were positive. Although this number seems low, it suggests that every international flight is importing potentially three or four infected people. Other research has suggested a minimal chance of catching Covid-19 from another passenger on a plane. But even if only 95 per cent of passengers succeed in getting the test, that would reduce the number coming into the UK with it to less than one in 1,300.

Governments rightly recognise that some foreign travel is necessary for international business to continue, but placing impenetrable barriers in their way ultimately means that contracts don’t get signed and the economy suffers.

On January 11, Robert Courts announced that “passengers arriving by ship, plane or train will have to take a test up to three days before departure and provide evidence of a negative result before they travel”. This was defined in a subsequent statutory instrument published on January 16 – the day before the changes were implemented.

The rules largely rely upon threatening to fine airlines who fail to check rather than doing so when one arrives in the UK, although immigration officers can still impose fixed penalty fines, starting at £500 for failure to produce a certificate.

The Government recognises that in some cases obtaining a test within three days may be difficult, but the problem is that airlines, faced with the threat of a £2,000 fine, are unlikely to allow any UK-bound passengers to board without a certificate.

A significant problem is that although many countries are offering ‘48 hour checks’ the reality is that these take longer, because the certificates can only be picked up later on the third day.

Typically, they recommend that you turn up for the check at 8.00am and collect the result two days later at 3.00pm – a 54-hour turnaround. If you assume one hour to get to the airport, it follows that you can only depart between 7.00pm and 9.00am to meet the 72-hour rule. The rules are quite specific that it is the time from when the sample was taken rather than when the certificate was produced that counts.

A third difficulty is that the negative test result must include one’s date of birth and when the sample was taken. I have had two Covid PCR tests outside the UK in the past two months, and neither of them met these requirements, although both included my passport number – which, curiously, has been omitted from these requirements. If airlines follow these rules strictly, then many people will be unable to return to the UK. The new policies stipulate that certificates must be in English, Spanish or French, and this seems likely to exclude even more people.

A final problem is that there is no way for travellers to get clarity about these regulations. Courts stated that British nationals who were having problems meeting this requirement “should contact the nearest consulate, embassy or high commission”.

When I followed his advice last week, I was informed by ‘David F’ at the ‘Consular Contact Centre’ that “the Home Office owns information regarding entry to the UK, including testing requirements, quarantine and exemptions”, and that he could therefore not help. Instead I should “contact the Home Office”.

He added that “for information about Covid-19 testing requirements abroad”, the Foreign Office recommended “an Internet search of the words ‘Covid testing near me’.” This produced helpful links to Chicago, Mumbai, Cheltenham and San Francisco.

The new regulations have also quietly taken away some of the exemptions from quarantining introduced for business travellers, those involved in advertising productions, the arts, television production, the National Lottery and journalists.

If these rules are to be effective with impending legitimate travel, more than reliance upon airlines and the occasional random check by an immigration officer is required. The current online Public Health Passenger Locator Form’ (PLF) works seamlessly, because it is linked to passports which are checked at eGates on returning to the UK. Passengers without the form are not allowed through.

It would make more sense to add a requirement to attach the Covid Test Certificate to the PLF and enter its details at the same time. This would offer several advantages. It would deter the temptation to submit a fraudulent certificate; it would make it considerably easier for airlines to carry out the necessary check; and the UK authorities would have a record that the appropriate certificate had been obtained.

Over the next few days, it will become apparent whether the Government, in reducing the risk of transmission, has stranded many British citizens abroad who have legitimately travelled for business purposes.

Paul Mercer: Local government needs to stay in the Zoom era

11 Jan

Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.

The majority of large companies and banks, as well as many small ones, realised the potential of videoconferencing many years ago and today it is rare to find corporate headquarters which do not have extensive facilities to enable remote meetings or remote engagement in physical meetings to take place. By contrast, local government has been slow to realise the potential of this technology. One of the side effects of the pandemic has therefore been to force councils to embrace videoconferencing, and for the government to, temporarily at least, change the law to enable both attendance and voting meetings to take place.

When Charnwood moved its email platform to Microsoft 365 (as it is now called) in 2018 it deactivated the Teams videoconferencing function. At the time, those of us who suggested that we should experiment with the technology were ignored. By the time the pandemic arrived it was clear that Zoom offered greater potential for managing meetings and after some hesitation it was adopted as our standard for meetings.

Councils can only hold remote meetings under a temporary legal provision and the Government seems to be reluctant to allow it to continue. Luke Hall MP (Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government) has argued that “to extend the facility for councils to continue to meet remotely, or in hybrid form, would require primary legislation”. He claimed that “there is no option to extend the current regulations under the Coronavirus Act 2020 as section 78 (3) contains the sunset date of 7 May 2021”. He gave the usual excuse that “there is considerable pressure on the Government’s legislative programme”.

So far all predictions for when the pandemic will be over have been wrong. For a multitude of reasons, I hope that the pandemic will be over in four months’ time, however hope is not a real policy. We must ensure that councils can continue to meet and vote so it makes no sense to remove the safety net of videoconferencing, especially at a time when local government can do so much to serve our communities.

Although companies were quick to embrace videoconferencing they realised that they could never entirely replace physical meetings. When there are debates over policy it is important to see one’s adversary and the way in which both Teams and Zoom moves between different speakers makes it difficult to have proper discussions. Allowing exclusive videoconferencing would be as damaging as banning it altogether.

What has been quite remarkable in Charnwood – and I am sure in most other councils – is that some of our more technophobic members, for whom even a smart phone represented a challenge, have readily embraced videoconferencing and attendance at meetings and training sessions has increased noticeably.

Videoconferencing offers local government far more than just the ability to continue functioning during a crisis, and as businesses have already discovered, it can be of significant benefit in the future.

The first, and most obvious, is that it means members and officers are no longer required to travel to meetings. Although Charnwood is large in terms of population it covers a relatively small area, but late afternoon traffic often meant that members spent a long time travelling. Video meetings can therefore be an element in our duty to tackle climate change, by taking almost 50 cars off of our roads.

Secondly, it might mean that more people who might otherwise have been reluctant to stand for election might consider becoming councillors. Most of our meetings take place in early evening and the need to travel might have discouraged potential councillors with disabilities, families, or work commitments from getting elected. There is no reason why one even needs to be in the same country and we have had meetings with Labour councillors joining from Rhodes and, in my case, during a work trip to central Africa, again without any issues. With coming changes, such as new unitary authorities, and Brexit giving councils more powers, there will be more work for each individual councillor. For any government to work well it must be representative of the people whom it serves, and therefore we must do all we can to encourage the widest range of people to stand for election.

Thirdly, it offers the opportunity to subject policy to far greater scrutiny by members. Although Charnwood has enthusiastic councillors on its scrutiny committees, they are often presented with so many documents it is often impossible to read all of them before meetings, let alone give policies proper consideration. With more councillors able to attend these meetings it should, hopefully, lead to far greater rigour in this scrutiny process.

Fourthly, it allows for longer meetings. Our meetings are generally restricted to two hours and often truncated with important issues sometimes not being properly discussed. With officers and members being able to join in from home without time spent traveling to and from meetings, more time could be dedicated to discussions without taking up any more of our members’ or officers’ evenings.

Finally, because these meetings can be livestreamed and archived, it offers the public the ability to monitor closely what is happening, as well as local journalists the ability to cover meetings without being there in person. It is rare to see members of the public at most council meetings but now they are accessible on YouTube the number of views is often into three figures. Even Charnwood’s audit committee manages to get views in double figures.

It would therefore be a mistake to abandon videoconferencing altogether. The most logical solution would be for a change in the law to permit hybrid statutory meetings. Those councillors who realise that there is often an advantage to be physically present – especially on contentious matters – would be able to attend whereas those who simply wanted to take a more passive role would be able to do so. The majority of our meetings are not full council meetings, in fact these only occur once every six weeks. While it may be ideal to be in the council chamber, especially as a lead member, to take questions and defend policy, most of the contact time is actually in other meetings such as briefings and committees. In these cases I do not believe it makes sense to deny members, or future members, the opportunity to do so remotely.

Paul Mercer: Police crime statistics need to be more intelligible and transparent

1 Sep

Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.

One of the more obvious ways of assessing police effectiveness is to look at crime statistics. Although, as the police are quick to point out, they do not necessarily reflect the amount of crime; only the willingness of the public to report crime.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Very few murders go unreported, and because insurance companies require a crime number, householders will also report burglaries. As a councillor representing a ward in the centre of a town, crime is one of the key issues for many residents. Over the years, we have found the easily-accessible data on the police.uk website a useful tool. It could be used both to put pressure on the police to deal with certain types of crime and also report on the success that they have had.

Until 2017, police.uk contained data going back to 2010 but the first five years were then deleted. Nicky Morgan, our MP at the time, raised the matter with the Home Office and, after a long delay, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, explained that the Data Police Application Program Interface (API) had been modified so it only presented data from the previous 36 months. “The decision to retain data for no longer than three years after receiving it from police forces was made in consultation with the Information Commissioner’s Office”, she explained, “and forms part of the Data Processing Agreement between the Home Office and their suppliers”. She further noted that “data should only be retained for as long as it is necessary and it was felt that three years was sufficient time to allow the complex and lengthy police investigations to result in final court proceedings so the outcome to the crime can be recorded accurately”.

The crime reports accessible on police.uk only indicate an approximate location and contain neither personal data nor identifying information. As such, there is no obvious reason why the ICO was involved given that its role is to protect personal data. On this basis, the ICO could credibly argue that electoral data should be limited after 36 months and nobody would know who had ever been elected. What was also not explained was why it was necessary to go to great lengths to record the data accurately and compile it, only to erase it after such a short period.

The Home Secretary helpfully added that although it had been decided to “retain data for no longer than three years” it was still possible to obtain this data via the archive which contains historic data back to 2010. This completely negated her point about not retaining data although, unhelpfully, there appears to be no reference to this archive on the ‘explore crimes’ section of the police.uk website.

In order to keep our residents aware of the crimes that were taking place in our ward in Loughborough, we would access police.uk, define its boundaries, and then take a note of the crimes which had occurred. However, when we last attempted to do this, we were informed that the service had been suspended in order to “prioritise providing access to key policing services to support the response to covid-19”. It would apparently be restored at some indeterminate time in the future. It is difficult to see how maintaining an API is taking manpower away from frontline policing.

The police.uk site does not state very clearly who owns and operates the site. The actual domain name is registered to Vodafone and it is only when you dig into the terms and conditions that it states that the ‘brand and the content’ is ‘owned’ by MOPAC. There is no link to this mysterious organisation which turns out to be the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime – part of the Greater London Authority.

In analysing the crime statistics over the past decade it was also apparent that, midway, the police decided to change the criteria by which they recorded statistics meaning that many of the older statistics were no longer relevant and it was difficult to make a proper comparison over a period of time. Although there were doubtless ‘operational’ reasons for this change it conveniently makes it difficult to make an objective comparison of how efficient or inefficient police forces are over a period of time. In terms of statistical significance many years of crime data are required in order to differentiate long term trends from short term factors.

The police.uk website proudly announces on its homepage that it exists to enable the public to “explore the latest crime statistics, find the force responsible in any area, read about how they are performing and what’s being done to tackle crime”. The website does contain a lot of useful information about the police and how they operate but it is failing to provide accurate crime data to enable the public and politicians to make objective long-term comparisons.

Rather than allowing access to this data to be controlled by the Mayor of London it would make far more sense for the Home Office to host a site which contained accurate data for the whole of the UK which could be easily accessed for the whole of the 10 years for which it is available. That way, it would be possible to make a formal objective comparison about how police forces are performing.